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Starbucks Aesthetic

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The designer couldn't have looked more like a designer. She sat in her office, a loft space in a refurbished warehouse with charmingly creaky wood floors, surrounded by books of paint and carpet samples; and though it was Friday, jeans day, she was casually, stylishly understated in a chocolate brown sweater dress, kelly green glasses and a bright orange iMac watch. When I commented on the latter, she said she'd bought it in the kids' section at Target. It doesn't get more hip than that.

My project manager and I were discussing an upcoming renovation with her, the transformation of a cancer therapy unit from hospital to "care center" atmosphere, where the décor would be soothing and of somewhat higher quality. She voiced some frustration: "We're trying to figure out how to work around these defects," and pointed to a tricky corridor that wound asymmetrically around offices and treatment cubicles due to fire codes, ADA regulations and a space that was just plain weird-shaped to begin with. "For instance," she continued, "To detract from the confusing layout of the hallway, there will be a piece of significant art on this wall."

Jim and I exchanged amused glances over the blueprints, and he said diplomatically, "Well, I'm going to ignore the fact that you're calling my architecture defective." Later in the car, we had a good laugh about the term she used to describe the insipid, half-baked "art" one finds in doctors' offices everywhere. Frank Lloyd Wright once said:

"Doctors bury their mistakes. Architects just plant ivy." Jim amended that with "…and interior designers hang Significant Art."

While others think the worst that could happen to modern art is that it goes the way of Hirst's biological antics and Abramovic's psychological sadomasochism, there might be a fate worst than death for painting and other media: significant art, that bland, nameless multimedia soup that spells mediocrity. We're so used to design and composition elements having inundated every aspect of our lives that we no longer view it as art, or even care to talk about it. Pinup girls of 1950s Coca-Cola fame were hung on the walls as posters; the soft drink company now pours far more cultural insight and complex understanding of consumer tastes into its advertising, and we angrily switch channels, ignore the banner ad or, at best, chuckle bemusedly and forget all about it.

[Aside: It's important here to make a distinction between advertising as art and advertising for advertising's sake. Boys in the 1950s pinned Coke ads to their walls because the girls were hot, but also because they drank Coke and associated the sweet fizz with hot girls, bathing suits, and the leisurely days of summer. Now, a friend regularly pins magazine ads on his wall, not for what they are selling but for their aesthetic qualities, often partially or completely detached from the image of the company. As graphic designers and photographers get bolder, and company executives more intimidated by the cacophonous world of art-pop-culture-sales, fewer and fewer commercials actually remind you of what they were selling. One day last summer, a televised basketball game was interrupted by a sequence of cat-herding farmers chasing their livestock all over the Western prairie. Weather-beaten, lined faces talked about the joys of being in the saddle with the cats, and the scenes of huge groups of felines bounding and meowing through the desert reduced me to hysterical, teary-eyed laughter. The next day, my friend Matt was still in awe: "I had a dream about that commercial," he said. "It was better than most movies I've seen." I never found out what it was for, but I remember the commercial as a brilliant piece of film-making, down to each minute detail: the "catherd" that was interviewed with one of his flock draped around his shoulders.]

Who is responsible for this overly-designed lifestyle we now lead? Starbucks may be the main culprit in the movement. It has suffered much over its giant commercial success in the recent years: when "Dr. Evil's Empire Headquarters" was flashed as a caption in front of a Starbucks sign in the movie Austin Powers 2, the cheers were deafening. But let's be intelligent: if you're going to hate it, don't hate it for its great sales pitch (convincing an already-overly-caffeinated nation it needed _lots_ more gourmet coffee.) Hate it for the aesthetic that has taken over bistros and boutiques nationwide. The kind that, when you walk into a room, makes you think, "Oooh, artsy!" And then you look closer.

And what? The same four color photographs in every store: withered hands holding rich, dark coffee beans, bright red berries and waxy green leaves. The same collages on every wall: just-so-sloppy handwriting, tastefully-blended "torn" photographs. It strongly resembles a lot of what you can find in galleries and museums everywhere: muted, catchy photo-sketch collages. Cross your eyes and it becomes a monochromatic blur. A specific example is Rauschenberg's Synapsis Shuffle, on display at the Whitney last year, a collection of fifty-two panels of the same height and varying widths that celebrities were invited to "compose" into individual pieces. Composers at this show included Wall Street brokers, opera singers, and Martha Stewart; hers was arguably one of the best, but they were really all the same. The images don't vary a great deal. There's not that much to see. It's what my former design professor Peter Eisenman would call "repetition of the same," something that always cycles back, repeating itself as consistently and annoyingly as a forgetful mother. Every store, the same feeling, the same atmosphere, the same caramel machiatto with way too much caramel. Some find this comforting, Starbucks the Great Equalizer, when traveling somewhere Different and perhaps a little Intimidating. They can always go in and get their trademark drink, and it will always be identical to the last one they had. People tend toward normalization, and culture does too, on a grander scale: on one as grand as Starbucks', it can get a little disgusting. And, paradoxically, though people want things to stay the same, they also crave change. They know they need to be shaken up, forced to try different things and examine the same ones in new ways.

Repetition of difference might look the same, but look again: with each stamp on the page, something changes irrevocably, something shifts. It's difficult to find an example in the modern world: the closest I can come is a row of houses I saw once in Astoria, Queens, built as row houses in an ABCBA format, so that the façade of each one was different from the one next to it. And further, each house had been transformed by its individual owners: not merely by window boxes and mowed or un-mowed lawns, but by children and new jobs, each variable changing the equation. The result was a busy and diverse street, pleasing to the eye, enough there to write a book about. The example is incomplete, but the best I can come up with in the modern world, and this is why Starbucks is to be feared — it has promoted this kind of Pottery Barn apathy among the general public.

Rauschenberg can't really be blamed; he's just trying to be heard amid the din of other voices, trying to out-shout the cacophony that has replaced artistic dialogue, trying to make Significant Art. But Starbucks is promoting a feeling, selling an image of artistry, and when a newlywed couple wanders into a gallery to pick out pieces for their SoHo loft, they will very likely point and say - that's nice, it reminds me of the coffee shop we hung out in when we were dating. Real artists, people interested in solving problems and advancing the disciplines of painting and sculpture, will have to overcome the sentimental nostalgia that's already establishing itself in order to make a living.

The popularization of modern art and its introduction to public life should be encouraged, but only properly — not by huge corporations trying to sell an image. If Starbucks really wanted to help the community of artists, they would start a scholarship fund for students, support a local theater group, help those who are trying to press forward with discourse and fighting a losing battle. Starbucks waters down the discourse, blurs the distinction between earnest bad art (annoying, but valid) and plain old indolence. This may be what people automatically distrust about Starbucks, but are unable to voice: people in my generation like to throw around phrases like "corrupt capitalist tyrant" and "consumer fascist Anti-Christ giant" when what they really mean is: every stinkin' coffee shop looks exactly the same, and it freaks me out! Coke makes lots more money than Starbucks does, but its supporters proudly drink water rather than Pepsi, while those who buy their lattes from the green mermaid apologetically shake their heads and say, "Nothing else was open." No one hates Coca-Cola for being financially successful. Everyone hates Starbucks: when Bart Simpson walks through the mall in one particular episode, an ongoing sight gag is that every other shop is a Starbucks. He finally stops at a tattoo parlor, where the proprietor agrees to give him one illegally because "In five minutes this place is gonna turn into a Starbucks." In Manhattan, it's almost that bad. On Astor Place, you can see one from another's outdoor courtyard, a sore point with locals because it used to be a Pasqua, purveyors of a superior product and kinder staff members. When Starbucks bought the smaller chain, it promised not to change the menu or the staff; mere months later, it went back on its word. This kind of thing is unpleasant, but not illegal, and it shouldn't be threatening either; it's capitalism, plain and simple. It happens. But what Starbucks is doing to the art world is much more dangerous. They are mass-producing bad-quality art and labeling it significant.

On the other hand, it's a fun place to people-watch. There's a disillusioned group of fourteen-somethings sipping existentially on their Frappucinos, ingesting one stage of pop culture while condemning the next: "I hate cell phones," says one girl. "Why don't people just go back to beepers? It's so much classier." Gay lovers discuss their shared spiritual journey at a volume that enables me to pick up most of the details from across the room. The frenzied employees mix up names as they shout out each drink, plopping it on the counter. One dissolves in giggles after trying three times, unsuccessfully, to blurt out "Grande Double Skinny Mocha Latte with Caramel!" Indeed, even if you enter the store intending to buy a regular $1.53 cuppa joe, even a specialty coffee ends up seeming pretty pedestrian. Who wants a boring old latte when you can have an alterna-drink: in the words of Larry the Cucumber, "That is *so* early '90s."

Photo: Repetition - Los Angeles, June 2004

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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